Buying or leasing a new or used car? It pays...

Buying or leasing a new or used car? It pays to prepare before you go shopping. These GM vehicles were on a lot in Peoria, Illinois, on March 28, 2012. Credit: Bloomberg News

Before you hit the showroom floor for that long-awaited new set of wheels, how should you prepare? 

Here are five essential bits of advice about buying a car that consumers should know before showing up at a dealership’s door.

1. When to buy

Spring may bring flowers and warm weather, but is it the best time to buy a car? Could the day of the week or time of day be a factor in car buying?

According to the United Services Automobile Association, at, spring may not be an ideal time to buy as dealers don’t need to entice customers because many have tax refunds to spend, and warm weather puts many consumers in a buying state of mind. 

“With summer days ahead, more shoppers with a little extra cash in hand are looking for their next new car -- which means dealers don't need to offer quite as many discounts to entice those eager shoppers to buy.”

But if you're in the market for a car now, you can still save by avoiding weekends or going late in the day when a dealer is anxious to get home. Also, shopping at the end of a quarter when dealers need to make sales goals can get you the best deal on the car of your choosing, as well as discounts on outgoing models and makes.

2. Reliability research

Any expert will tell you that doing your homework is just as essential as going to the dealership and signing a lease. This includes evaluating the reliability of a vehicle through various Web sources and publications, as well as checking the news and recall announcements.

“Shoppers can consult various sources, such as J.D. Power and Consumer Reports, to see, historically, how that make and model hold up,” says Carroll Lachnit, a consumer advice editor at “These reports can be a window into what to expect with the current model year of a new car, assuming it hasn't been redesigned.”

Reliability reports from vehicle websites like AutoCheck and Carfax can give you a detailed rundown of your desired car’s accident and repair history.

Newer cars may not need as much reliability scrutiny as older makes, but even the latest models can be the subject of  recalls for dangers that can go  unnoticed or unfixed.

“For an extra, extra measure of protection, shoppers can check to be sure a new car isn't subject to any open recalls,” Lachnit said. “Recalls on yet-to-be-sold cars should be addressed by the dealer on whose lot the cars sit, but some have slipped through the cracks.”

3. Trading-in

So you want to get some extra mileage out of your high mileage reliable car by getting good trade-in value. What steps should you take before going to the dealership?

“Just relying on looking at what people are asking for a car ‘like mine’ in online classifieds isn't enough,” Lachnit said. “That car's options, condition and mileage may be wildly different from those of your vehicle.”

Using car appraisal tools like those at Kelley Blue Book or can let owners know quickly what the true value of their car is based on sometimes forgotten factors like location, options and extras. Both tools shows how much your car is worth when trading-in or how much it would be worth selling privately.

4. Affordability

For young professionals seeking a new car, the monthly cost should not exceed 20 percent of monthly after-tax income, according to Lachnit.

“This figure doesn’t include gas, insurance or maintenance, by the way,” she said. “You can look for a car that fits the bill among new or used cars to buy, or a new car to lease. There are pros and cons for each choice.”

These pros and cons of buying new, buying used or leasing vary, such as the ability to modify and sell your car as opposed to giving it back at the end of your lease. Edmunds compares the options of renting versus ownership here.

5. Closing the deal

You may think your new car is a done deal after shaking the dealer’s hand, but plenty of paperwork and number checking still awaits.

Other potential price add-ons can emerge with the dealership’s finance and insurance manager. Through added insurance, loan services and extended warranties, the manager can rack up additional costs to your purchase that can turn your “good deal” sour quickly.

“If you let down your guard, you risk blowing what might otherwise be a great deal,” says.

Check out a full list of “fair and foul” closing fees from Consumer Reports here.

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